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Bayelsa’s obnoxious life pensions bill

By Editorial Board
13 May 2019   |   4:25 am
The overwhelming condemnation by individuals and groups of Bayelsa State’s life pensions for legislators bill portends a positive development in the nation as citizens are now rising up to challenge actions....

[FILES] Governor Seriake Dickson

The overwhelming condemnation by individuals and groups of Bayelsa State’s life pensions for legislators bill portends a positive development in the nation as citizens are now rising up to challenge actions by those they elected to serve them. It is also gratifying to note that the Governor of the state, Seriake Dickson has declined assent to the obnoxious bill. This is how the majesty of democracy should be enhanced. This development serves as a warning to other states in the federation that may be warming up to such misadventures. Democracy should not be government of the governing elite against the people’s wish.

The Bayelsa House of Assembly had the other day passed a bill to provide life pensions for members of the State House of Assembly as applicable already for governors and deputy governors of most states. Not only did they state the amount to be paid monthly for life, the honourable members cast the net far back to include all indigenes of Bayelsa who had served in the elective positions not only in the state but in the old Rivers State. This is incredible at such a time like this when the same state is not paying salaries and pensions regularly.Going by the profile and number of those arranged into this list of beneficiaries, it would cost the state an estimated N20 million every month.

The bill, which has repealed the 2003 Law covering governor and deputy governor and would have granted the speaker a monthly payment of N500,000; the deputy speaker N200,000 and each member N100,000.In the presentation, the sponsor stated that the bill would “provide reasonable financial security for the beneficiaries, thus shielding them from the vagaries of the economic uncertainties.” A member, in supporting the bill had added that it would help curb the tendency of such public servants from engaging in sharp practices.” A third member submitted that lawmaking was a critical and cumbersome function, demanding they be well cared for.” Where is a mindset based on a culture of service in all this?

But fittingly, the public reaction to the hastily passed bill was swift and furious. Within 24 hours of the action by the lawmakers, individuals, civil servants, the opposition APC (with two of the 24 members) and civil society groups across the country expressed outrage. The Socio-Economic Rights Advocacy Project (SERAP) went a bit further by writing the governor an open letter, which encapsulated the elements of the public anger. The group described the bill as an improper performance of public functions, an abuse of legislative function and a violation of the constitutional and international provision on conflict of interest in the global effort to curb corruption.

Furthermore, the governor was reminded of his oath of office to preserve the Fundamental Objectives and Directives Principles of State Policy not to allow personal interest to influence official conduct and decisions and to do the right to all manner of people according to law and to devote himself to the service and well being of the people. It also referred to Article 8 (1) of the UN Convention against corruption that implicitly forbids large severance benefits for public officials and requires the lawmakers to promote integrity, honesty and responsibility in the management of public resources.

The civil society groups demanded that the governor use his good offices as trustee of state’s resources, to reject the bill and to prevail on the members of the State Assembly to withdraw it.It was indeed good that the governor realised that the controversial Pension Bill would not fly and he wrote to the speaker expressing his decision to withhold assent. He went further to call the members to a briefing and explained the reasons he had to withhold his assent.

Rightfully, he noted that the bill was inconsistent with Section 124 of the 1999 Constitution and that the State Assembly lacked the powers to expand the category of public servants entitled to pension, although the Assembly could adjust the quantum of pension payable. He stated that there was no other state that had expanded the categories of pensionable public officers to include lawmakers. The governor, a former member of the House of Representatives added that Bayelsa State should not be the first to initiate such a deal given a low internal revenue base and a myriad of challenges, especially at a time of unpredictable oil-dependent economy.

It is on record that the state has up to 265,000 children without access to primary education. Such children should benefit from the N20 million to be spent on such idle and unproductive citizens who had been unduly pampered as elected representatives. The details of the governor’s explanations and his handling of the controversial issue are remarkable. Such a strategy should serve as a reference for similar instances in other states of the federation.

Everything a person does is a proclamation to the universe of what he is. Therefore, the Bayelsa lawmakers revealed their true motives and confirmed the accusation of being self-serving.

There is an adjunct to the Bayelsa travesty, concerning former office holders who collect pension while in another elective office. In 2017 SERAP made allegations against Senator Saraki and Femi Falana followed up to demand he refunded pensions money to the state government. Saraki complied. The Senior Advocate of Nigeria commended Saraki and urged him to prevail on 20 other senators (at the time), former governors, to stop receiving pension from their states. It will be instructive to know if any of them had done the honourable thing.

We commend three ministers in the Buhari cabinet who disclosed that they are not receiving pensions from their respective states where they had served as governors.But the next step for the civil society organisations, in this connection, is to demand a repeal of the life pension laws for all the governors in the country. It is obscene. The office of the citizen in Nigeria should rise up against the obnoxious laws.